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Jaws: The Oral History
The filmmakers talk us through the making of a classic

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It’s now more than 30 years since Steven Spielberg’s shark flick Jaws bit the zeitgeist on the bottom and swallowed $300million worldwide. As it approaches a cinema re-release this week and an upcoming Blu-ray release, we thought we’d reprint this 1995 feature from Empire magazine, which went behind the scenes of the movie that simultaneously filled cinemas and emptied beaches...

The Book
Peter Benchley: (Author of Jaws, The Deep and Great White, co-screenwriter and cameo actor as a TV newscaster in Jaws) I’ve studied sharks since I was a child. They were no great secret to me. But then one day I read this newspaper clipping about a man who caught a four hundred pound Great White off Long Island, and I thought, what would happen if one of these things came into a beach and wouldn’t go away? The idea just lingered…

David Brown: (producer of Jaws, The Sting, The Player and A Few Good Men) It came to my attention through a five-by-six card in the fiction file of Cosmopolitan. My wife, Helen Gurley-Brown, edits Cosmopolitan. There was a brief description perhaps two paragraphs long, and the last sentence said it would make a good movie. It was then in manuscript form, and I thought it would make a terrific movie but I had no idea how to go about it. Nobody had ever conceived of a movie where a man-eating shark leans up upon the stern of a boat and swallows a man.

Peter Benchley: The name itself was something of an accident. I spent months trying to find a title, playing around with all sorts of pretentious things like Stillness In The Water, Leviathan Rising and The Jaws Of Death. Twenty minutes before the book had to go into production we still didn’t have a name. The only thing my editor and I agreed on was the word ‘Jaws’. I said, ‘Why don’t we call it that?’ It was lucky, it was a great title.

The Adaptation
Peter Benchley: There was a great deal of trepidation about doing the movie. It was a first novel, it was a first novel about a fish and I thought you couldn’t possibly make a movie out of it…

David Brown: Had we read the manuscript twice, we might not have acquired the film rights. But it mesmerised us as it did people around the world, even in manuscript form, before all the hype and attention the sharks got.

Peter Benchley: I didn’t think they could do it because I knew you could not catch and train a Great White, and I thought the technology wasn’t good enough to build one. But Universal went ahead with it, although they had trouble getting a director. They finally settled on a 26 year-old unknown, who knew nothing about the ocean.

David Brown: We had made Sugarland Express which was our first experience of Steven Spielberg. It was so extraordinary that when we acquired Jaws we hardly thought more than once about offering it to Steven.

Peter Benchley: Even at 26 he was an encyclopaedia of the motion picture industry. I had seen his other two movies (Duel and Sugarland Express) and you could tell that this man had enormous command of the camera.

The Script
Peter Benchley: The only reason I was allowed to write a screenplay was because there was a threat of a Writer’s Guild strike, and the producers knew, because I had never written a screenplay before, that I wasn’t in the Guild so they could at least get one draft out of me. Richard Zanuck, one of the producers, told me to take out the love story as it was to be an A to Z adventure story. We got rid of everything that wasn’t absolutely vital to the plot.

David Brown:
Steven added the idea that Brody was afraid of the water.
Steven Spielberg’s instinct for hit movies was to have someone you care about. In the novel, the wife of Chief of Police Brody was cuckolding him with the ichthyologist. Steven said, ‘You can’t have three people on a boat being pursued by a killer shark where one of them would like to see the other dead.

Peter Benchley: I did the screenplay a couple of times, then it was rewritten by a whole band of people. And, as the movie was being shot, the write with whom I share a credit, Carl Gottlieb, was on the set the whole time, and he rewrote as the scenes demanded.

Carl Gottlieb: (Co-screenwriter of Jaws, screenwriter of Jaws 2, Jaws 3D, who also appears as local newshound Meadows in Jaws) Spielberg and me were friends, we had the same agent. He told me he was doing this movie and said I should be in it, make some jokes, help crowd scenes along. He asked me what I thought of the script and, as a favour, I wrote him a long memo saying what I thought. Then I got a call from Steven on a Sunday morning about two weeks before shooting was due to start. He said, ‘Listen, I’m at the Bel-Air Hotel with Zanuck and Brown.’ It was kind of like, Where do you get a writer on a Sunday morning, Carl? So I went over at 11 and stayed until seven that evening talking about the movie. The next day they made me an offer to do a dialogue polish, and could I be on a plane for New England, Tuesday?

Peter Benchley: My contribution to it was basically the storyline and the ocean stuff – basically, the mechanics. I didn’t know how to put the character texture into a screenplay.

Carl Gottlieb: My version was enormously different from Peter’s. We focused the story on the three protagonists and made it Moby Dick meets An Enemy Of The People. We made the fish the monster in a monster movie.

David Brown: Steven added the idea that Brody was afraid of the water, coming from an urban jungle to find something more terrifying off this placid island near Massachusetts.

Peter Benchley: There has been a lot of controversy about who wrote the famous Indianapolis speech. I don’t know; I didn’t see it being filmed. Shaw claimed he wrote it himself. I have heard it was any number of people. John Milius was said to have written it.

David Brown: John Milius claimed he wrote that famous speech. That speech was written by Howard Sackler. Milius added something and then Robert Shaw added a great deal.

Carl Gottlieb: The scene below decks on the Orca was written by the credited writers (myself and Peter Benchley) and Robert Shaw, who wrote his own long speech about the Indianapolis, describing an incident that occurred during the year John Milius was born. I willingly conceded that the idea of a scene in which men compare scars as a macho ritual may have originated with Milius; his personal obsession with “manly” behaviour is well-known. However, the Indianapolis speech was written by Shaw, who was a gifted writer as well as actor. He collated the research, and examined all the drafts of the speech by different screenwriters…

Jaws: The Oral History

The Casting
David Brown: It was cast for credible actors rather than for major movie stars. Many big-time movie stars turned it down. I can’t remember who.

Carl Gottlieb: Roy Scheider committed first. But ten days before we started the movie, we didn’t have the other two protagonists. Steven and I were of the mind that the guy who was going to be the scientists must at least have the appearance of an intellectual. We both knew Richard Dreyfuss’ work, Ricky was a friend of mine and he had turned down the part already. He said, ‘This is a movie I’d rather see than be in’. Still, I got him to Boston, where we were filming. I said, ‘You’ve got to come and talk to Steve. I’ll be there, we’ll all be pals and it’ll be great’. He walked in the door wearing the hat and glasses he wore in the film, and with a beard; we took one look at him and said, ‘Don’t change a thing’. Then we talked him into doing the movie.

David Brown: We had Sterling Hayden up for the Shaw part at first. He would have been perfect, but it didn’t work out. We knew Shaw, we had made The Sting with him, and that turned out to be a wonderful piece of casting.

Carl Gottlieb: The film required a kind of heroic guy and Sterling Hayden would have been brilliant, but a tax situation kept him from acting. Shaw was the only Bond protagonist (in From Russia With Love) who could give Sean Connery a run for his money, [make you think] this guy might hurt. It was that danger, that physicality, that we wanted, and Shaw was available.

Peter Benchley: It was brilliantly cast. When the producers first asked me who I thought should be in it, I said Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Steve McQueen. It turned out they didn’t need any stars. The star was the first; movie stars would have detracted from it. What they got was three terrific actors who became much more realistic for the audience than if they had been stars.

The Shoot
Carl Gottlieb:
The budget was $9 million, which is nothing by today’s standards, but at that point it was depicted as being out of control.
It was intensely collaborative. If you’re working in LA, where the crew want to go home and be with their families for dinner, you generally shoot a ten or 11 hour day, and a five day week. We lived the film. We’d talk about it in the morning when we woke up, then Steven would shoot all day and I’d be writing back at the house. He’d come back, we’d watch the dailies, talk through the movie at dinner, dream about it, and wake up in the morning and do it again.

Peter Benchley: Going back to William Goldman’s phrase, ‘The first day on the movie set is the most exciting day of your life; the second is the most boring’. I didn’t spend that much time there. It was mostly standing around in bad weather and dealing with Shaw, who was difficult at times. I was just amazed that this movie was being shot. Spielberg had this enormous patience. Putting it together was a logistical nightmare. The scene I was in had 400 people on the beach and it was freezing cold, it was supposed to be the summer…

Carl Gottlieb: There was nothing to do except make the movie. We never got off the island [Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts]. There’s an old joke: who do you have to fuck to get off this picture? Then it got to who do you fuck to get off this island? Nobody, you had to stay there and do the work.

David Brown: It was difficult. The budget was $9 million, which is nothing by today’s standards, but at that point it was depicted as being out of control. Universal were exceedingly supportive, though.

Carl Gottlieb: The famous shot of the head popping out of the boat wasn’t done on set. This is one of the great Jaws stories. Steven wasn’t very happy with the shot while the film was being edited. He said, ‘There’s got to be a better angle for that, we’ve got to do it again’. But the movie was finished, there was no more money for shooting. The film was being cut in editor Verna Shields’ garage in the San Fernando valley. Steven said, ‘I’ll pay for this myself but we’ve got to shoot it’. So he called around and got this skeleton crew together. They put tarpaulin over Verna’s swimming pool at night with the props and the boat and the head, threw a half gallon of milk into the water to make it more photogenic and got the effect that you see in the movie. Then, when the executives saw it, they asked how much it cost and the studio said, ‘All right’ and paid for what turns out to be a major point in the movie. I had a friend who was a theatre manager on Hollywood Boulevard, and just for laughs Steven and I would go to the theatre at about the time we knew that moment would occur. We would stand at the back and watch 1000 heads jump simultaneously, then we’d laugh and nudge each other and go out for the evening.

David Brown: We had ships sink on us, including the mother ship which carried all the equipment, a picture boat…even the Orca went down at one point.

Carl Gottlieb: I didn’t have to go out on the boat every day. I stayed on dry land, made tea and typed. Then they would come in, ravaged and sunburnt, windblown and covered with salt water. IT was horrible out there. The challenges of making the movie were awesome and, being a perfectionist, Steven would keep everybody at it until he got the shot he wanted. Sometimes it would be days just getting the shark to do a swim left to right. You spend a day on the water and get 12 seconds of usable film. It’s a hard way to make a movie. In fact, it was remarkable; I don’t think any of us realised how special it was. There are some directorial touches in the film that are pure Steven’s auteurship, that you would think were scripted, then there are directorial moments that you think are directorial moments but were actually the function of the writer. It was this intensively collaborative production. Like Brody catching his kid mimicking his actions. It was one of those happy accidents. At the time we did the scene it was about the middle of the production and it wasn’t clear yet who the focus of the story would be, whether it would be Brody the family man, Brody at sea or the relationship between him and Hooper. So Steven shot the scene for days from every character’s point of view, and while he was doing it Steven caught the young actor making faces on the set and got the moment. It was probably the first time you saw Spielberg’s affinity for kids.

Jaws: The Oral History

The Shark
David Brown: We enlisted the talents of Robert Mattey, who had designed the creature in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. He was engaged to create a variety of sharks to fit the head, the body, the fin… It was to be towed and eventually powered by a hydraulic system. It was very tiresome and very tedious. There were all kinds of mechanical problems with electrical polarisation in salt water. Richard Zanuck and I more than once saw our careers going to the bottom of the Atlantic while the sharks sank and frogmen were sent down to rescue them.

Carl Gottlieb: We had some models in mind. We wanted to get suspense like in The Thing, the black and white horror movie. The success of The Thing was that you didn’t see the monster until halfway through the movie; you only saw its effects. There was a conscious decision to hold the shark back until the best possible moment.

Peter Benchley: There were, in fact, three sharks. There was one from the right side, one from the left side and one from the top. They were all on hydraulic sleds. The name of the shark was Bruce. I don’t know who named it.

Carl Gottlieb: It was Steven who named him Bruce, after his lawyer, a showbiz attorney called Bruce Raymer who was a particularly rapacious attorney.

David Brown: We did use some real footage. It was Richard Zanuck who thought of using a midget in a diving suit, in Australian waters off the Great Barrier Reef. It was easy to double it. The sharks closing around the cage looked twice as big.

The Finished Article
Peter Benchley: I had seen it in pieces all along as I had been asked to sit with Verna Shields, the editor, to watch the shark footage and make sure it was accurate. The first time I saw the whole film was in a screening room at Universal, where I was asked to assemble shark experts and divers to look at it to see whether it was laughable. All the great names in the shark business were there to look at it from a technical, shark point of view. I had been concerned about the ending of the movie all along. We had argued long and hard about the fact that a shark would not bite down on a scuba tank and explode like an oil refinery. Steven’s response was, ‘I don’t care: if I’ve got them for two hours they will believe anything in the last three minutes’. He was absolutely right. At the end of the screening, we were very worried the divers were going to laugh at it, but they came out as jazzed as everybody else. Outside they began to talk about buying MCA stock.

David Brown: We were frightened to death about the film because the fact that we were using an artificial shark was well known to the general public. The Washington Post had somehow gotten a photographer into a barn in Martha’s Vineyard. He photographed the monster in his various incarnations and put it on page one of The Post, which is widely circulated, so we didn’t think we would frighten anyone. We didn’t know what we had until we previewed the film in Dallas, Texas, far from salt water. The reaction was so extreme we had to have two more previews on the same rainy night. We knew from the screams. We repeated the screening in Long Beach, California, close to the water, and it was the same thing. It was the audience who told us what we had, we ourselves were never confident.

Jaws: The Oral History

The Phenomenon
Carl Gottlieb: The blockbuster nature? Nobody predicted that, not even the studio. Everybody knew that pictures did well in summer but nobody had realised that summer was a unique platform for action adventure movies. Jaws was the first one to do that. And then the first week that the movie was out there, there was a shark attack in San Diego. I’m sure the publicity department wished they could have taken credit for it, but there was a real life Great White that attacked a bather. That made the cover of Time magazine, so that helped make the world shark-conscious. Then it turned out that what we had hoped for, that this unseen creature lurking in the deeps played on some very primal fear in audiences that had never been exploited before. When the first couple of weeks’ grosses were fed into a computer which predicted pictures’ performances, the computer came back and said that Jaws was going to gross $80 million and they said that’s impossible. It went on to gross $250 – 300 million. It was this public phenomenon that nobody could have predicted.

David Brown: It’s easy to figure it out now in retrospect. The primal fear of water. Many people feel a terror in the water: you can’t get away from it, away from a shark for example. We are born with a fear of falling, there is also a fear of water that to this day haunts people when they go to the beach, even in swimming pools. We tapped into that, and it goes on still. Somebody coined a phrase, ‘We emptied the beaches and filled the theatres…’

Peter Benchley: I think I have finally found an answer to the issue of why it was so successful and why it has lingered. I had no idea; I thought by accident it had touched a pulse, some atavistic desire in the public. We do not just fear our predators, we are transfixed by them. We are prone to weave stories and fables and chat endlessly about them. Fascinations breeds preparedness, and preparedness survival. In a deeply tribal sense we love our monsters, and I think that is the key to it right there. It is monsters, it is learning about them, it is both thrill and safety. You can think of them without being desperately afraid, because they are not going to come into your living room and eat you. That is Jaws.

Interview by Mark Salisbury and Ian Nathan

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